Lamb: The Best Kept Secret On American Tables
Although Easter and Passover don't always overlap date-wise, they do overlap meal-wise. Lamb is a food deeply rooted in many Mediterranean traditions, and is often found on the holiday tables of both Christians and Jews in the Old World. However, lamb has not travelled well and most Americans paradoxically shun it.
Although it is lamb's Mediterranean roots that make it a staple of spring holidays, the lamb capital of today's world is undoubtedly New Zealand, where the sheep outnumber the people by more than 100 to 1. It's a good thing they aren't too bright (the sheep, that is), or they would have taken over long ago - and undoubtedly cut off lamb exports.
Whether it's from New Zealand or Wyoming, a lamb is technically a sheep that's less than a year old. Most of what we eat, however, is from animals much younger than that, usually as young as four months. The older the lamb is, the stronger the taste, and Americans prefer their lamb mild. Once a lamb reaches one year of age it's termed a hogget, and after two years of age, it's now mutton. You need a truly strong stomach and a penchant for acquiring tastes to love mutton. To most Americans, it tastes sheepy, gamey, and revolting.
While travelling in Scotland, I sat down to dinner in a little town outside Inverness and decided to try the Scotch Pie. I'd had it before in Edinburgh as well as many places outside of Scotland, and found it to be very mild and tasty with a delectable lamb savor. What I had not realized was that in the Highlands, the Scotch Pie is made from mutton rather than lamb. I heartily dug in, and as soon as that sheep flavor hit my tastebuds, I couldn't help but spit it back into the dish. The waiter was not amused.Much of what you find in butcher shops and supermarkets are the familiar cuts: rack, leg, chops, and shanks. But don't limit yourself to just those. Sometimes the more prosaic forms of lamb, like stew meat, lamb neck, and ground lamb, are easier to incorporate into your everyday cooking.
- Take your cue from lamb's Indian and Mediterranean roots, and think about combining it with traditional flavors of those areas - eggplant, olives, feta cheese, spinach, mint, yogurt, curry, couscous, pine nuts, tomatoes, lentils, rosemary, and, of course, garlic.
- Substitute lamb for beef in your favorite stew or casserole.
- Make lamb stock by simmering lamb neck, onions, carrots, peppercorns, and a bay leaf in water. Use the stock in stews and sauces. (Use caution, though - lamb stock isn't neutral the way chicken and beef stock are. It will give a distinctive lamb flavor to whatever it's used in.)
- To make shish kebab, use lean lamb cubes with cherry tomatoes, mushroom caps and red bell pepper.
- Trade ground or diced lamb for beef or sausage in chili or spaghetti sauce.
- Make a lasagna with ground lamb, feta cheese, and tomato sauce seasoned with rosemary.
- Combine ground lamb with chopped onion, a dash of cayenne pepper, and some fresh mint for grilled or broiled lambburgers.
Try a lamb barley soup, with a lamb-stock base and plenty of mushrooms and carrots.